A Not-So-Empty Tomb? Keeping Track of Bodies in First Century Jewish Tombs

A Not-So-Empty Tomb? Keeping Track of Bodies in First Century Jewish Tombs March 6, 2012

In my book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, I discuss the likelihood that after being crucified, Jesus was buried in a tomb located near the execution site which was dedicated to the entombment of criminals executed there.

This implies that, while it may or may not be the case that women went to the tomb early the following Sunday morning and found Jesus’ body to no longer be in it, talk of an empty tomb is likely to be incorrect.

One question I have long wanted to seek an answer to is what evidence we have regarding how people kept track of the remains of their loved ones under such circumstances. In some instances, a court may have denied a person condemned to death the right to secondary burial in a family tomb. And in the case of family tombs, keeping track of who was placed on which shelf during a given year may have been straightforward. But both in cases of criminals whose remains could be moved to a family tomb a year later for secondary burial, and initial burials in family tombs during times of plague or war when many deaths occurred, it would presumably have been desirable to keep track of who was placed where in the tomb, so that their remains could be treated appropriately.

Many ossuaries have a name scratched in them. Many do not. It may be that in some situations, particularly in the case of initial burial in a family tomb, it may have been enough just to know that it was one’s relatives and ensure all remains in the tomb the same treatment.

But what about initial burial in a tomb other than a family one? What did people do under such circumstances? More specifically, do we have evidence from any first century tombs, and especially those in and beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, of people making marks on the edge of burial slabs and tomb shelves indicating who was buried there?

Since I am primarily a textualist, I would love to hear from archaeologists and others who have investigated first-century tombs first hand. This is relevant information as we think about how events might have unfolded for Jesus’ body and for his family and followers in the days (and perhaps a longer period of time?) after the crucifixion.

There are other topics which one might ask about in relation to the recent claims about the Talpiot patio tomb – for instance, how common is it to find ossuaries of very different qualities of construction and illustration in the same tomb, as seem to be found there?


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  • Eldad Keynan

    The Jewish courts have lost their authority to execute any condemned criminals ever since the Romans conquered the Land; that is: 63 BCE. The question of how could the relatives know who was buried in what niche in a regular family tomb remains; at least in the many cases of non-inscribed ossuaries. However, executed criminals’ bodies would have to remain in the court tomb for a year in a state of unburied corpse. How could anyone identify the remains of this or that criminal? In the Talmud, rabbis discuss the Sanhedrin and the cases it executed criminals; the conclusion is that even if a Sanhedrin executed one criminal in 70 years it would be named “lethal Sanhedrin”. Thus, actually, the problem of identifying criminals’ remains probably never occured. But we have also another textual evidence, that the family could legally collect the bones from the preliminary burial spot to a shallow pit in the family tomb (Hebrew מכתשת = machteshet). In this pit, the personal identities have been lost, naturally. The rabbinic sources do not discuss this “mix” of bones that resulted from the pit practice. So we may assume that it wasn’t a problem. After visiting hundreds of tombs in the Land, I can say: I have never identified a distinguished mark that could be used to identify an individual interment. I believe that even in cases of war or plague, the living relatives could easily identify the remains in their own tomb; they could have a sort of simple record for that purpose on a small parchment or even a piece of wood.
    Identifying the remains of an individual interment in a tomb doesn’t seem to be a problem; at least it was not important enough to be disccussed in the rabbinic literature. On the contrary, Jews were allowed to move ossuaries from one niche to another in the tomb without any restrictions. The legal article that allows for that practice says nothing regarding identification problems. Family members could turn the interments’ identities to a highly important issue; in these cases, they inscribed the names. It could well be a part of the seceased’s last will. But there is no compelling law in this regard.  

  • MSPia

    Actually, according to the New Testament, when Jesus was not found, Mary did not assume weird magical miracle stuff.  She asked “where have they taken him?”…She just asked where they had moved the body to…but then, instead it turned out that something freakishly weird had happened instead…He had just risen, which is completely different from “we moved him to the criminals’ tomb”.  Read The Bible for yourself “after all, people fought like Hell and were burned at the stake and Gutenburg and loads of other people busted their butts so you can read it for yourself and make up your own mind based on what it actually says instead of going on what you heard it says.”

  • Shibui

    Dr. John Tabor, head of the department of religious studies at UNCCharlotte, has done extensive archaeological work on this area and, in fact, has a new book out on it, I believe.

  • Eldad Keynan

    MSPia, I never quoted anyone saying: “we moved him to the criminals’ tomb”. I don’t think someone had to say so, back then. According to Jewish law, his body must have been taken to the criminals’ tomb, which was under the Sanhedrin authority and was built for the purpose of “accomodating” executed criminals for preliminary burial. I am convinced Jesus’ initial burial actually took place in the tomb under the well known Holy Sepulcher. From this tomb he had disappeared. Whether or not he had risen is a theological question. As such, it is beyond my capacity. So, if someone hears things nobody said – it’s not me. No one ever said “we moved him to the criminals’ tomb” simply because no one had to. I also recommend deep reading of Jewish ancient legal sources if one really wnats to understand Jesus’ life, death and burial. Unfortunately, many well known scholars skip these body of literature when they study Jesus. The problem gets worst when conclusions are made while ignoring this body of text.

  • Bespectaled1

    Luke 24:50 thru 56 , Mark 15: 42 thru 47, Matthew 57 thru 61, all give the account, of Jesus’s burial, and are in agreement in their message. It seems that this author did not read the scriptures pertaining to this. He assumes that the government reserved burial land for criminals, and since Jesus was counted as one, that would discount or not provide Joseph of Arimathea, the oppurtunity to recieve Jesus’s body, and bury Him in a tomb that had never been used, and belonged to Joseph. The sriptures are quite clear and consistent in how and where Jesus was buried, but Praise God!, we know that a Glorious Resurrection was yet to be realized, as promised by Jesus!

    • Bespectacled, if you wish to run early and late sources together, that is your business. A historian has to notice when later sources differ from earlier ones, and ask why the differences are there.

      Eldad, thanks so much for your input from the perspective of both on location research and speculation well-informed by archaeology and textual sources from antiquity! I wouldn’t expect there to be a need to put names on burial shelves in most family tombs. The need to do so would be exceptional, and perhaps nowhere needed other than in situations such as a tomb for burial of criminals. I should try to get a look at some of the burial niches in tombs within and beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher! 

  • Eldad Keynan

    To the question on this page title: I’ve just visited another Galilean tomb today (see photo). I spent a few hours in it, looking for any sign of “tracking” the remains. The disapointing result was – nothing. In fact, the only means of tracking the remains was inscriptions on ossuaries. I thought: maybe people used to inscribe the interments’ names on the walls, at least in some cases? So far, after hundreds of tombs, and according to other studies, no “names list” was found on one or another tomb wall. In my former comment I suggested a sort of written record. I dare say: it’s nothing more than a remote guess. Some Jews inscribed the names of their dead relatives on ossuaries; others simply didn’t. Tombs markes the death of Jews, thus tombs also marked their (former) life. Yet tombs had another important function: they marked land ownership. As such, individual identities became ignorable in many cases; the important detail was what the public knew: a certain tomb belongs to a certain family. Families members knew who is buried in what niche at least during the first generation after someone died. Probably this knowledge lost its importance later.   

  • Eldad Keynan

    James – I’m afarid you will find nothing in the tombs beneath the HS. The number of Jewish criminals executed by the Sanhedrin was so small, that there was no problem to identify the remains. The Sanhedrin had two tombs under its authority; one for those executed by decapitation and strangulation, and one for those executed by stoning and burning (the combinations may have been different). That is:the small number of executed criminals was divided among two tombs. Identifying the remains was easy. Moreover: in both tombs beneath the HS today, only a few details are original. The “shelf” in the tomb beneath the HS rotunda was brought in hundreds of years after the events. But, after all, why not give it a try?  

  • John MacDonald

    I’m trying to think if the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea might have had symbolic significance in Mark. For instance, the tearing of the veil seems to symbolize the reconciling of humans with God, and the words of the soldier at the cross seems to symbolize the reconciling of Jews with Gentiles. Perhaps the Romans permitting Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a dishonorable burial as was Jewish custom (contrary to the Roman custom of leaving the prisoner on the cross) was meant to symbolize the reconciling of the Jewish people and their laws with Rome, which would have been a concern for Mark following the destruction of the temple by Rome.